Charting Remedios Varo’s Mystical Voyage into the Surreal and Sacred

The Varo exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago is a groundbreaking journey through the Spanish Surrealist's enigmatic and enchanting world and marks an exciting milestone in the Institute's history.

It would be easy to pigeonhole Remedios Varo: Science Fictions as another nod to female artists. The exhibition is the Art Institute of Chicago’s first solo exhibition dedicated to a woman Surrealist painter and, more specifically, a woman artist living and working through the apex of her creation in Mexico. Additionally, the exhibition’s creation was notably woman-led, with the Institute’s Gary C. and Frances Comer Curator in Modern and Contemporary Art, Caitlin Haskell, and independent curator Tere Arcq at the helm, with several more women contributing to the catalogue and the team. But Science Fictions refrains from viewing Varo’s work primarily through the lens of gender.

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Remedios Varo. La huida (The Escape), 1961. Museo de Arte Moderno. INBAL/Secretaría de Cultura. © 2023 Remedios Varo, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VEGAP, Madrid. Photo by Rodrigo Chapa

While Varo’s work does feature many female protagonists, her sex is not the primary factor in her significance as an artist. Much more important, the Institute reminds us, are her inventive technique, enduring interest in science and history and her explorations of occult and spiritual subject matter.

Science Fictions focuses on work created during the last eight years of Varo’s life, when she was most productive, and it brings together more than twenty paintings she created in Mexico between 1955 and her death in 1963, along with personal ephemera, some reading material from her collection and preparatory drawings. This is the first solo exhibition of Varo’s work in the United States in twenty years, and it’s an exciting opportunity for many visitors to encounter her work in person for the first time.

The intelligently designed exhibition space takes the viewer on a journey through Varo’s worlds, transitioning seamlessly between them. Each section represents a distinct psychic space aligned with the themes of the displayed work: discovery, creation, into the studio and seeking freedom. The octagonal structure housing Varo’s items and drawings was inspired by the artist’s fascination with sacred geometry and use of the octagon throughout her work, and the spatial arrangement offers an intimate glimpse into the artist’s creative process.

Remedios Varo. Tauro (Taurus), 1962. Museo de Arte Moderno. INBAL/Secretaría de Cultura. © 2023 Remedios Varo, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VEGAP, Madrid. Photo by Rodrigo Chapa

The exhibition serves as a comprehensive showcase of Varo’s extensive and varied repertoire. From her experiments with Surrealist movement techniques to her uniquely conceived methods, the Institute presents an in-depth showcase of Varo’s creativity. Special attention is paid to the variety of her techniques, meticulously detailed in the accompanying labels.

One of the unique advantages of viewing Varo’s works in person is the opportunity to examine them up close, where minute details reveal her painstaking artistic process. The pieces on view reward close observation; there’s much to learn in the visible scratches that penetrate the paint to the gesso beneath or the use of a single hair to create lines on the surface of a picture, which highlight the artist’s commitment to revealing the unseen and to technical ingenuity that cannot be captured through photography.

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The first two works in the space, Roulotte (1955) and Discovery (1956), masterfully highlight Varo’s innovative exploration of technique and set the stage for one of the exhibition’s central preoccupations.

Stepping into Science Fictions is akin to stepping into a different realm, where the conventional laws of reality are bent and twisted to form a unique narrative driven by Varo’s exploration of surrealism, mysticism and science. Visitors are greeted on the opposing wall by The Flutist (1955), a fitting introduction to this wild world. The work, a powerful visual expression of Varo’s interest in history, the invisible and technical innovation, is a tantalizing preview of what lies ahead. The works in the “discovery” section feel like a paper abstract, highlighting what’s to come further into the journey, effectively familiarizing viewers with that which makes Varo’s work worthy of a solo exhibition.

Remedios Varo. Armonía (Harmony), 1956. Collection Eduardo F. Costantini. © 2023 Remedios Varo, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VEGAP, Madrid

The impact of Varo’s time in Mexico is explored, but not in depth. Here is a missed opportunity to better understand how some of Varo’s techniques or formal choices may have evolved due to her exposure to different artistic techniques in Mexico City. Varo would likely have been exposed to colonial-era creations after fleeing Spain, which means that aside from the spiritual implications of mother of pearl in The Flutist, the figure’s inlaid mother-of-pearl face may have had farther-reaching implications.

Further into the exhibition, Homo Rodans (1959), a distinctive piece of sculpture and paper-based work, seems slightly out of place. (Homo Rodans is Varo’s name for a fictional species pre-dating humanity that traveled the world not on foot but on wheel.) Coming after a breathtaking triptych about hypnosis, it feels shoehorned in, which is a shame as it’s a work that showcases Varo’s playful spirit and singular imagination. Given its content, it might have found a better home near The Flutist, as both works deal with this notion of discovery and employ an anthropological eye to create art.

“Creation” explores Varo’s interest in science, blending a Surrealist impulse for the utterly bizarre with alchemy and transformation. The standout work in this section is Useless Science (1955), also known as The Alchemist, in which the boundaries between floor and fashion blur. The work is a stellar example of Varo’s whimsical and inventive mind, and the curators found in her notebooks that the intended title was The Woman Alchemist, shedding new light on the identity of the protagonist, who was previously thought to be male or androgynous.

“Into the studio” provides an intimate glimpse into the artist’s working methods, from the books she referenced to the tools she used and the crystals she kept on her canvas as she worked. The drawings in this section grow progressively larger, moving from small notebooks to single sheets to significant painting-sized preparations. There’s a strong impression here of Varo working—how she conceptualized her paintings and the tools she used. We even get a glimpse into an accounting ledger for one of her works. Housed in the constructed octagon, visitors are transported through time and space into the artist’s studio.

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The final section of the exhibition, “seeking freedom,” showcases Varo’s larger works focused on achieving enlightenment. The apotheosis of this creative avenue is her triptych showing a woman moving from a very confined and restrictive life into one of freedom. An allegory of hypnosis, the protagonist finds her freedom by sewing herself into it, working diligently to free herself from the tall tower she and her peers are studying, in a Rapunzelesque move of creative fervor. Many small, hidden moments invite sustained engagement with the three-part series, and in a talk on opening day, Haskell and Arcq underscored the importance of showing the entire triptych together—and their efforts to bring all three paintings to the Art Institute of Chicago.

Science Fictions is a holistic representation of Remedios Varo’s remarkable technical skill and creativity and offers a unique opportunity to understand and appreciate the unique world of the artist. Her imaginative blending of the visible with the invisible, the real with the surreal, creates an intricate narrative that rewards deep exploration.

Remedios Varo: Science Fictions is on view in the modern art wing at the Art Institute of Chicago through November 27.

Charting Remedios Varo’s Mystical Voyage into the Surreal and Sacred